Nov 19, 2020

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week, we look at mental health in the pandemic winter, neurotech ethics, and more.

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  • Programming note: We're off next week for Thanksgiving and will be back in your inbox on Dec. 3. I hope you find a safe and meaningful way to celebrate.

Today's newsletter is 1,656 words, about a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Reach out to help beat the pandemic winter blues

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

This season could bring exceptionally bad winter blues — and even worse mental health conditions, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

The big picture: The pandemic already is causing stress, anxiety and growing mental health disorders — and it could get worse with COVID fatigue, seasonal affective disorder and holiday-related depression, experts warn. But there are steps you can take to alleviate the dangers.

Driving the news: The CDC is urging Americans to stay home this Thanksgiving as deadly infections are spiking across the United States.

  • Hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed, making social distancing and other measures even more important, public health officials say.

What's happening: The pandemic is exacerbating mental health trends — when mental health conditions already tend to worsen with holiday stress — and introducing new issues.

1. Loneliness is growing in senior adults and is leading to a rise in substance use disorder, according to a survey of 1,000 adults who have parents over 70 living alone.

  • 88% are more isolated from loved ones, 85% are more lonely, and 53% feel forgotten.

2. Young people also face greater mental health issues.

  • The CDC found the proportion of mental health–related visits to emergency departments rose 24% for children aged 5–11 and 31% for those aged 12–17 between April and October, when compared with the same period last year.
  • The pandemic is stressing a health care system already overburdened, as there's only about one child psychiatrist for every 15,000 youths under 18, Parker Huston, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, tells Axios.

3. Substance abuse is rising.

  • While it is too early for data to establish a direct correlation with the pandemic, suspected overdoses rose 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May from the prior year, the Washington Post reports.
  • "The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the challenges for people with a substance use disorder," Patrice Harris, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association, told the National Association of Attorneys General on Monday.

Yes, but: There are steps individuals and communities can take to combat the pandemic's punch to mental health.

  • Create new holiday traditions, such as have families make cookies, potato latkes or tamales together while on Zoom, Huston suggests.
  • Get outside every day for exercise and to see green spaces or national parks, all of which will help produce serotonin and help with seasonal affective disorder and wellbeing, says Ken Yeager, professor of psychiatry at Ohio State.
  • Keep in constant contact with older family members.
  • Check on your older neighbors who live alone and help with their yard or errands. Plus that "gift of sharing gives you a rush of dopamine, which is your mood boost in your brain," Yeager adds.
  • Look for outreach programs in communities. Yeager says some match older adults with students or others for assistance and connection, or they offer daily phone check-ins.
  • Remote-learning kids need to develop routines at home — "one of the big benefits for most kids about school is the consistency," Huston adds.
  • Utilize tools like light treatment and Vitamin D for SAD, Yeager says.

The bottom line: "Social distancing does not mean social isolation" says Yeager, adding that society can encourage resilience to protect mental health.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

The big picture: The pandemic is as bad as it has ever been in the U.S. — "the most cases, the most explosive growth and the greatest strain on hospitals," per Axios' Sam Baker.

  • Two other ways to see it via Axios data journalist Andrew Witherspoon: by county and over time.

Vaccines: In an interim analysis, Moderna reported 94.5% efficacy of its mRNA vaccine.

  • Go deeper: Read more about how new approaches could speed the vaccine process in future pandemics.

Vaccines II: Pfizer says it now has enough safety data to seek an emergency use authorization for its vaccine developed with BioNTech.

  • Key takeaway: They report the vaccine was 94% effective in people over age 65.

Immunity: "Eight months after infection, most people who have recovered still have enough immune cells to fend off the virus and prevent illness," the NYT's Apoorva Mandavilli reports.

3. Biden's Day 1 challenges: Trust in science

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The American public's divided trust in science is a foundational crisis that Joe Biden will have to address in order to tackle the other crises awaiting him on Day 1, including a raging pandemic and climate change.

Why it matters: Partisan divides, eroded confidence and an exodus of experts from the federal government could hinder responses to both COVID-19 and climate change.

Repairing institutions and expanding public trust in vaccines “will have to be a very active project by Biden,” says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • The percentage of Americans willing to take a potential COVID-19 vaccine dropped from 66% last summer to 50% in September, but it's grown again since then, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.
  • 4 in 10 people still said they wouldn't take a vaccine, citing safety concerns and worries that the process was rushed.

Distrust of a potential coronavirus vaccine is even higher in some Black communities. Black Americans are among those who have been historically underrepresented in clinical trials and sometimes experimented on in the past, and they are now disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

  • The Biden administration has "an opportunity to set the tone for inclusivity about who is a voice in science," says Namandjé Bumpus, professor and chair of the pharmacology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Across government agencies, 1,600 federal scientists left their positions during the first half of the Trump administration, many of them at the EPA and other agencies with roles in addressing climate change.

  • The Biden administration will have to try to bring experts back and give scientists a bigger role at the most senior levels of government, says Neal Lane, a former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation who is now at Rice University's Baker Institute.
  • Lane also says Biden should reverse a recent Trump executive order making it easier to fire some civil servants.

The big picture: China's scientific prowess is growing, and several experts told Axios that competition from Beijing requires immediate attention from the next administration.

  • Biden has proposed $300 billion in federal R&D funding for science and technology over four years. It would "get the country started on the right foot," Lane says, "but it's not enough to deal with the rapidly increasing threat to the position of the U.S. in the world."
  • What to watch: The extent to which the Biden administration tries to restore scientific cooperation with China, including staffing up the CDC's Beijing office, which was cut under the Trump administration, and engaging with China via the World Health Organization.
4. The tricky ethics of neurotech

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As the science of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and other neurotechnologies progresses, researchers are calling for ethical guidelines to be established now — before the technology fully matures, Axios' Bryan Walsh and I write.

Why it matters: We’re still far away from technologies that fully access and even read the human brain, but the sheer power of such tools — and the highly personal data they could gather — means society needs to determine what they should do before they actually can do it.

What’s happening: Columbia University’s NeuroRights Initiative held a symposium today in conjunction with IBM on the scientific, security and social issues raised by neurotech.

  • Today scientists are able to read and write information in the brains of animals, and they’ve developed interfaces that allow humans to move computer cursors and more with only their thoughts.
  • In the future, BCIs could provide an unprecedented view of the human brain at work, which in turn could unlock new clinical insights into largely untreatable mental and neurological diseases, as well as change how humans interface with the world.

What they’re saying: The ethical issues raised by that power were the focus of IBM director of research Darío Gil’s symposium remarks, which touched on first-generation ethical principles for neurotech developed by the company.

  • “As the power of technology continues to increase, the governance of technology needs to go along with it,” Gil told Axios before the symposium.
  • “Every player that develops and creates technology that is at the cutting edge has a responsibility because the purpose of technologies is as a tool to help society.”

Details: Many of the ethical issues created by BCI — questions of transparency and fairness — resemble those raised by AI or even social media, only intensified.

  • It’s one thing for tech companies to track what we click on and what we watch, but data generated by the nervous system can be unconscious, which could fatally undermine principles of consent and privacy.
  • And neurotechnology could go beyond reading the brain to effectively coding it, feeding it data that could influence thoughts and behaviors, which brings into question core concepts around free will.

How governments will oversee the technology isn’t yet clear, but Gil foresees something for neurotech like the White House Council on Bioethics, which in the past debated policies on stem cells, genetic engineering and more.

Go deeper

5. Worthy of your time

A new mini-moon enters our orbit (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Surviving weed-out classes in science may be a state of mind (Dalmeet Singh Chawla — NYT)

Quantum computer race intensifies as alternative technology gains steam (Elizabeth Gibney — Nature News)

Scents of history: study hopes to re-create smells of old Europe (Nicola Davis —The Guardian)

6. Something wondrous

A blue ring nebula. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Seibert (Carnegie Institution for Science)/K. Hoadley (Caltech)/GALEX Team

16 years ago, astronomers glimpsed an unusual ring of ultraviolet light around a star 6,300 light-years from Earth. They now know how it formed.

Why it matters: The blue ring nebula gives astronomers a rare glimpse of a common stage of a star's life that is often obscured by dust and molecules, the researchers report.

What you're seeing: When the Sun-sized star TYC 2597-735-1 engulfed another smaller star, it kicked out two cone-shaped clouds of fluorescent debris, a team of researchers, including some that initially spotted the nebula nearly two decades ago, report this week in the journal Nature.

  • One cloud is pointed away from Earth and the other toward it, where we can see the bases overlap to form a ring.
  • The researchers used data from multiple ground and space-based telescopes to piece together the ring's origins.

"It's like catching sight of a baby when it first walks," Caltech's Don Neill said in a press release. "If you blink, you might miss it."

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